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When It Comes to Weight, Americans Are Loosening Their Belts

by Christa Ehmann

As Americans grow heavier, satisfaction with own weight remains steady


PRINCETON, NJ -- A recent Gallup poll update of weight and body image trends records some interesting changes over the past decade, suggesting Americans are losing the battle of the bulge -- but seem resigned to it. The average self-reported weight of the nation's adults is up nearly 10 pounds since 1990, but fewer Americans now consider themselves to be overweight. Despite the extra weight, most Americans remain satisfied with the way their bodies look. Perhaps as a result, the percentage who want to lose weight has remained the same, and there has been no significant change in the percentage who actually report serious efforts to lose weight.

According to respondents' reports about their own weight in a July 22-25 Gallup telephone survey, the average American woman today weighs 150 pounds and the average American man weighs 190 pounds. Both of these figures have increased since 1990 when, on average, women claimed to weigh 142 pounds and men claimed to weigh 180 pounds. At the same time, Americans' conceptions of their own ideal weight have also increased. Today, the average ideal body weight cited by women is 136 pounds and the average ideal weight cited by men is 180 pounds. Both of these figures have increased since 1990 as well -- when the average ideal weights for women and men were 129 pounds and 171 pounds, respectively.

The public may be heavier than in the past, but just as Americans' conceptions of their own ideal weight have increased since 1990, the percentage describing themselves as "overweight" has dropped, from 48% in 1990 to 39% today. Both the percentage who reportedly weigh more than their target ideal weight (62%) and the percentage who want to lose weight (52%), however, have remained unchanged since 1990.

Striving for the Ideal
As indicated, Americans' reports of their actual and ideal weights suggest that nearly two-thirds of adults, 62%, weigh more than what they consider to be ideal. When asked explicitly, slightly fewer, 52%, say they want to lose weight. However, only 39% of the public considers itself "overweight."

Perhaps this discrepancy between the high percentages of Americans who weigh more than their ideal and who want to lose weight vs. the relatively low percentage who see themselves as "overweight" comes down to the total number of pounds involved. In fact, among those who weigh more than their ideal, 45% reportedly weigh only one to 10 pounds over their target figure. Another 31% are carrying an extra 11-25 pounds, while 24% -- representing 15% of all Americans -- indicate they weigh at least 26 pounds more than their ideal. Given these numbers, it appears that a substantial proportion of Americans who want to lose weight may be striving for a degree of self-perceived perfection, rather than adhering to physician charts of healthy weight ranges.

Body Image Remains Fairly Healthy, but Many Still "Worry"
Despite the relatively widespread interest in weighing less, most Americans seem to have a healthy body image. The percentage of Americans saying they are "generally pleased" with the way their body looks is currently 72%, statistically unchanged from 1990. As can be predicted from this trend, significant attempts to lose weight have not increased. Today, 20% of all the nation's adults say they are "seriously trying to lose weight," compared to 18% in 1990.

There is one finding in the new survey that does not obviously fit with all the others. Although general satisfaction with body image remains steady and perceptions of being overweight have declined, more Americans today say they are worried about their weight than was true in 1990. When Americans are asked how often they worry about their weight, 42% currently report that they worry all or some of the time -- an eight-point increase over 1990. This includes an eight-point increase (from 7% to 15%) in the portion of the population that worries about its weightallof the time. It is not clear why personal worry about weight has increased -- especially as there has been a slight decline in the percentage who report that physical attractiveness is important in today's society -- from 84% to 76%.

Despite all this worry, however, relatively few Americans are currently taking serious steps to lose the weight. Only 36% of individuals who consider themselves to be overweight are seriously trying to lose weight -- meaning that most, 64%, are not doing so. Interestingly, the percentage of Americansactively tryingto lose weight today is very close to the figure Gallup recorded in its first measurement on the subject in 1951. However, at that time, far fewer people indicated theywantedto do so. In 1951, 31% of all Americans said they wanted to lose weight and 19% said they were taking active steps to reduce. By contrast, today 52% want to trim down and only 20% say they are doing something about it.

Key Gender Differences
Across the board, women are more concerned about, and less satisfied with, their personal weight situation than are men. Although men and women are remarkably similar in their weight status (men are, on average, 10 pounds away from their target ideal weight, compared to 14 pounds for women), the gender difference is such that more women characterize themselves as overweight, feel they need to lose weight and report they worry about their weight.

Looking at the 1999 data by gender, 67% of women compared to 60% of men report that they currently weigh more than their ideal and 43% of women vs. 37% of men consider themselves overweight.

Currently, 58% of women say they want to lose weight, 37% want to maintain their present weight while just 5% want to gain weight. These figures are statistically similar to poll numbers from 1990, when 62% of women polled wanted to lose weight and about one-third wanted to maintain their weight. Men are not quite as concerned about weight loss as are women, although a substantial percentage does report a desire to lose weight. Today, 44% of men would like to lose weight, 43% would like to stay at their present weight, and 13% want to gain weight. Men showed similar levels of concern in 1990, when 42% wanted to lose weight and just under half wanted to maintain their weight.

Additionally, more than half of all women today worry about their weight all or some of the time, while only 31% of men report equal levels of concern. Consistent with this, a greater percentage of women (24%) than men (16%) are taking serious steps at weight loss.

When respondents are asked about the age at which they first tried to lose weight, women report having made their first attempts at weight loss at an earlier age than do men. This average age for women is 26 -- as it was in 1990 -- with 21% of women claiming they first tried to lose weight at 17 years of age or younger. The average age for men is 30; interestingly, this is three years younger than the average recorded for men in 1990. Overall, men are attempting to lose weight at younger ages today than in 1990. Today it is reported that 20% of men first attempted weight loss at the age of 17 or younger, compared to only 14% of men in 1990.

Survey Methods
The results below are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,021 adults, 18 years and older, conducted July 22-25, 1999. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

How would you describe your own personal weight situation right now -- very overweight, somewhat overweight, about right, somewhat underweight, or very underweight?

  Very over-
Somewhat over-
About right Somewhat under-
Very under-
No opinion
99 Jul 22-25 4% 35% 53% 6% 1% 1%
90 Oct 11-14 7 41 46 5 1 *

Would you like to lose weight, put on weight, or stay at your present weight?

  Lose weight Put on weight Stay at present weight No opinion
99 Jul 22-25
TOTAL 52% 9% 39% *%
WOMEN 58 5 37 *
MEN 44 13 43 *
1996 55 4 41 *
1990 52 7 40 1
1955 37 13 48 2
1953 35 14 48 3
1951 31 17 50 2

How often do you worry about your weight? Would you say you worry all of the time, some of the time, not too often or never?

  All of the time Some of the time Not too often Never No opinion
99 Jul 22-25
TOTAL 15% 27% 34% 24% *%
WOMEN 20 32 29 19 0
MEN 10 21 41 28 *
90 Oct 11-14
TOTAL 7 27 33 33 *
WOMEN 13 33 32 22 *
MEN 2 19 33 46 *

At this time are you seriously trying to lose weight?

  Yes No No opinion
99 Jul 22-25
TOTAL 20% 80% *%
WOMEN 24 76 *
MEN 16 84 *
1996 26 74 *
1990 18 82 *
1955 17 83 *
1953 25 75 *
1951 19 81 *

And what is your approximate current weight?

99 Jul 22-25
124 lbs. or less 11% 20% 1%
125-149 lbs. 19 32 6
150-174 lbs. 25 24 27
175-199 lbs. 20 9 31
200 lbs. and over 20 8 33
No opinion 5 7 2
  100% 100% 100%
Average Weight 170 lbs. 150 lbs. 190 lbs.

What do you think is the ideal body weight for you, personally?

99 Jul 22-25
124 lbs. or less 13% 25% *%
125-149 lbs. 31 52 8
150-174 lbs. 23 17 29
175-199 lbs. 19 3 37
200 lbs. and over 12 1 23
No opinion 3 2 3
  100% 100% 100%
Average Weight 157 lbs. 136 lbs. 180 lbs.

* less than 0.5%


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